Jennie Davis Porter

Jennie Davis Porter was born in 1876, the daughter of a school teacher and a former slave said to be Cincinnati’s first African American undertaker. She attended the city’s integrated schools, and graduated from Hughes High School in 1895. In 1897 she began to teach at Fredrick Douglass school, at the time the only African American school in Cincinnati. Jennie Porter lived most of her adult life in Walnut Hills; she continued to teach at Douglass through 1914.
Jennie Porter took an interest in the influx of poor southern Black agricultural workers who migrated to the industrial north in the Great Migration beginning in the early twentieth century. She realized that many children arrived in Cincinnati poorly educated in schools that met only six months out of the year in order to accommodate the cultivation of cotton. In 1911 she opened a private kindergarten for these migrant children in the West End. By 1914, she persuaded the Cincinnati Public Schools to open a new public school for African American students in the West End. The school was called the Harriet Beecher Stowe School after the author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin who had lived in Walnut Hills in the 1830’s and ‘40’s.
Porter’s leadership in creating the Stowe School aimed at a different objective than the Frederick Douglass School in Walnut Hills, which promoted academic excellence for a middle class African American population. Porter explicitly followed the example of George Washington Carver at the Tuskegee Institute, designed to prepare African Americans for skilled manual labor. Porter remained principal of the Stowe School until her death in 1936.
In 1918 Jennie Porter (by that time in her 40’s) enrolled in the University of Cincinnati, and earned her BA in education in 1923. She continued her studies, receiving a master’s degree in 1925 and a Ph. D. in education in 1928. She was the first African American woman to earn a Ph. D. from UC. Her master’s thesis and her dissertation presented studies of the ways in which the segregated Stowe School met the needs of its poor African American students, in an environment run by Black teachers and administrators, free of the oppressive racism abroad in the city. Porter was roundly criticized by the traditional African American leadership in organizations like the NAACP and journalist Wendell P. Dabney. Her conclusions about the nurturing nature of segregated schools were contradicted by the psychologists Kenneth and Mamie Clark in their research during the 1940’s that lead to the Supreme Court’s rejection of segregation in Brown vs Board of Education.